Thursday, July 1, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale

I've split Scene 5 into two beats - the first with Hamlet and the Ghost, the second between Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus. The first is a long piece of exposition, but it sets up the action (or inaction, if you will) of the play. Directors must here find a balance between making a visual meal of the Ghost's appearance, and keeping the audience focused on the words. Some haves tried flashbacks to to the day of the murder, but most have let the actor do the heavy lifting. There is more at stake in this decision than first meets the eye. If you show flashbacks, you are implying the Ghost's account is true, grounding the words in a reality the audience can think back to. It's a legitimate choice, but one that removes at least one layer of ambiguity to the Ghost/Hamlet relationship. Or does it? Depending on how it is staged, the Ghost may "flashing" to a fiction, or Hamlet may be flashing to his own imagination.

As usual, the full text follows in italics, with some comments from me throughout.[SCENE V. Another part of the platform.]
[Enter GHOST and HAMLET]
HAMLET: Where wilt thou lead me? speak; I'll go no further.
GHOST: Mark me.
HAMLET: I will.
GHOST: My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.

For fans of the DIShonest Ghost theory, this opening must be important evidence. We've just had a scene shift, and the Ghost has gone from appearing (around midnight) to needing to leave soon (dawn). And Hamlet has to stop it and initiate the conversation. If he hadn't, would the Ghost have led him to those tormenting fires? The implication is there for those who wish to see it (though few have pursued the idea of an evil Ghost on the silver screen).

HAMLET: Alas, poor ghost!
GHOST: Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
HAMLET: Speak; I am bound to hear.
GHOST: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
GHOST: I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

That Hamlet Sr. was murdered without Confession or Last Rites we know from later in the speech. Less time is spent thinking about what he needed to confess. "Foul crimes" may cover more than the normal wages of war. In this line, Shakespeare implies that Hamlet Sr. may not be any better than his brother Claudius. Ironically, in a speech that talks a lot about listening and ears, Hamlet does not pick up on this. Compare to his later admission to Ophelia that he is proud, revengeful and ambitious. The same violence or sin is inside him, but everything remains merely potential.

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

To Hamlet, Denmark is (or becomes) a prison. There is an interesting comparison to be made between the Ghost imprisoned in Hell/Puragory, but allowed free at night to cause havoc, and the living Hamlet walking freely about trapped in his own angst and unable to do anything about it.

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
GHOST: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
HAMLET: Murder!
GHOST: Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
HAMLET: Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

Hamlet paints himself as a potential avenging angel, a contrast to the hellish metaphors used by the Ghost.

GHOST: I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,

There is a strong theme about remembrance in the play - how long should one grieve and respect the departed? - which mixes with the hellish visions of the Ghost here. The river Lethe takes your memory and the Ghost warns Hamlet not to let himself forget him. If a director or actor wants the Ghost to be imaginary, it is useful to note that the Ghost seems to share Hamlet's own concerns about his apparently forgotten father.

Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

The story of Hamlet Sr.'s murder evokes the Garden of Eden. He is Adam, Hamlet's progenitor, and Claudius is Satan; Gertrude as Eve as a role to play. Note also the first mention of the King's ear, which in the usual royal metaphor, is also that of Denmark. There is a pun at work here. He was physically poisoned through the ear, while Denmark was metaphorically poisoned by being fooled into accepting a new status quo.

HAMLET: O my prophetic soul! My uncle!

According to Borges, the worst line Shakespeare ever wrote.

GHOST: Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:

The Ghost starts not with the murder, but with the love affair. Are we to take it that adultery was committed before murder?

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

Again, this mirrors Hamlet's own feelings about his mother's new union. If the Ghost is a figment of his imagination, it would share them.

But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.
But, soft! methinks I scent the morning air;
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,

The Royal body is here described as a city, lest we forget that Denmark has also been abused.

And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:

This will of course play off Hamlet refusing to kill Claudius while he prays.

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!

Throughout the speech, the Ghost is careful not to implicate Gertrude in Claudius' sins, even if we know full well that it takes two to tango. The best explanation is that the Ghost is still in love with her, which doesn't necessarily point to an honest Ghost. His blind love may lead him to get Hamlet to kill Claudius out of jealousy. (Except we know Claudius is guilty.)

The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire:

Another bizarre animal reference in the Ghost's speech, after that of the "porpentine" (porcupine). Between those and the serpent, the Ghost creates an atmospheric wordscape that is both surreal and foul, where staging and set dressing may not have that option.

Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.
HAMLET: O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;

The implied stage direction is that Hamlet throw himself to the ground (to "couple hell").

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!

Hamlet will soon break this promise, filling his head with all sorts of things. Perhaps it takes the whole of the play to purge away all thoughts that do not have to do with revenge. Or perhaps Hamlet comes to realize that his revenge intersects everything he's ever thought about. "Unmixing" is not possible. The book metaphor, fitting for a professional student, foreshadows the fact that he is not a man of action, but a man of study.

O most pernicious woman!

Already, Hamlet has forgotten his father's edict that his mother be absolved of wrong-doing. Hamlet is such a powerful character (or mind, if you will) that he is never forced to follow the expected plot. He follows his own thoughts where they will lead him, aggressively ignoring other characters and their roles in the drama. He's just been given a mission, and the proper hero would complete it, overcoming complications along the way. But Hamlet is his own complication and does not follow the usual rules of drama, somehow trying to approach true self-determination despite being a "written" character.

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word;
It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'
I have sworn 't.

Through the next few articles, we'll also be able to look at how the Ghost was played, since Scene 5 features its first lines (and the first of only two speaking appearances).

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